Not long ago, an assembly discussion of the word "understanding" began, says the top junior teacher, Karen Errington, "with children saying that we all needed to understand why some cannot read, or swim, things like that". Next there was a massive leap as they considered why some of the children's parents couldn't get on. "A boy whose parents' marriage was breaking up said that he wanted the subject talked about, but that he himself couldn't speak about it because it would make him cry."
The children acknowledged that it must be terrible for the boy but suggested that, if his parents were happier living apart and he saw them being happier, it might not be so bad. Then they offered their sympathy. That these small children are secure enough to introduce such traumas for general conversation, and so sensitive to one another's needs that they can respond practically and supportively, speaks volumes for the school. Teachers attribute the school's quality to its comprehensive values programme.
West Kidlington school is in a village north of Oxford with a catchment area that includes many one-parent families and some pupils with educational difficulties. Positive value words are used throughout the schoolday, and teachers and parents say children are happier, calmer and better motivated as a result. Twenty-two concepts, such as peace, love and responsibility, are used for a month at a time over a two-year cycle (the whole of August is a holiday). The concepts are designed to provide a framework for living and to be harmonious with all religions.
Teachers say the values give children emotional balance and mental clarity, and thus their school work improves. "It's the whole child we're concerned with - literacy, numeracy, heart and soul," says Karen Errington. "An unhappy child is not going to learn." The approach has won praise from school inspectors, who reported: "Pupils show commitment [and] sustain concentration for long periods." The school is high in the league tables.
The programme was introduced four years ago by the headteacher, Neil Hawkes, who'd had 20-odd years of primary headships and several as a county adviser behind him when he went back to a school post to test his theory that a strong social and moral framework was essential not only to pupils' emotional and spiritual development but also to their academic success. "Working in this way, we improve on real standards - the way children behave and interact and then use that information to lead happier and more purposeful lives and achieve their full academic potential".
Some of the small allocation of discretionary time in the prescribed timetable is used to discuss moral questions with all ages, even five- year-olds. During the month of honesty, for example, Linda Heppenstall's Year Fives (aged 10) talked over Richard's problem: he was concerned about what he should have done when kicked by a bigger boy with whom he'd been playing football. Richard had hidden the ball in his locker.
Such questions are considered without judgement, but the teacher's conversational observations, such as "but then nobody could play football", could have been said to carry meaning. The class made suggestions: "You should have kicked him back ... You should have told Miss ... You should have told him off..." The consequences of each option were looked at, and found wanting.
Richard had kept the ball hidden for a couple of days and then, unable to bear it any longer, had restored it to the teacher on playground duty. "And what did the teacher say?" asked Ms Heppenstall. "She said `Thank you for being honest'," replied Richard. He'd been allowed to work through the logic of his own conscience and was applauded for behaving properly. The school believes in encouragement and approval. Inappropriate behaviour is seen as something for adult and child to look at together to help find a better route. "Never criticise the child, only the behaviour," is a favourite axiom of Mr Hawkes.
The use of the words in class is probably strongest in literature studies. In a lesson on The Secret Garden, Mrs Brand's Year Sixes (aged 11), asked for adjectives to describe the heroine, Mary Lennox, offered "tyrannical", "grumpy", "spoilt" and "sour". "Why do you think Mary is all these things?" "Nobody loves her; She hasn't any friends," they said.
Next, they were asked what value words might have helped her. Respect, unity, co-operation and patience were mentioned. One boy said that "Mary should have been taught properly by her parents, not just left with a servant". Appraisal, not criticism, is a constant element.
Asked directly about the concepts, children say such things as: "You have to respect your friends because, if you don't, your friends won't respect you, and then you won't have any friends." Statements carved around the school sculpture include this, from Emma, aged 10 - "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood" - and this, from Clare, aged seven - "Care is a feeling of respect and love, all rolled into one."
Parents notice a difference. In the month of helpfulness, one mother noted that every night her son asked what he could do. "It was wonderful!" she remembered. This stopped when the word changed, but she said that was only natural.
What happens when they go on to the real world of secondary school? "I just hope the building blocks are there," says Mr Hawkes, "so they don't duck out when things get tough."
The writer is preparing a book about West Kidlington Primary School